Tag Archives: rhetoric

Climate science with the Gorgias


George Will, the world’s worst climate scientist, reminds us of a passage from Plato’s Gorgias as he once again ventures into climate science.  At least this time he isn’t confusing a work of actual fiction with actual non-fiction science.   You can read whatever he says at the link.  Here is relevant passage of the Gorgias:

Soc. Let me tell you then, Gorgias, what surprises me in your words; though I dare say that you may be right, and I may have understood your meaning. You say that you can make any man, who will learn of you, a rhetorician?

Gor. Yes.

Soc. Do you mean that you will teach him to gain the ears of the multitude on any subject, and this not by instruction but by persuasion?

Gor. Quite so.

Soc. You were saying, in fact, that the rhetorician will have, greater powers of persuasion than the physician even in a matter of health?

Gor. Yes, with the multitude-that is.

Soc. You mean to say, with the ignorant; for with those who know he cannot be supposed to have greater powers of persuasion.

Gor. Very true.

Soc. But if he is to have more power of persuasion than the physician, he will have greater power than he who knows?

Gor. Certainly.

Soc. Although he is not a physician:-is he?

Gor. No.

Soc. And he who is not a physician must, obviously, be ignorant of what the physician knows.

Gor. Clearly.

Soc. Then, when the rhetorician is more persuasive than the physician, the ignorant is more persuasive with the ignorant than he who has knowledge?-is not that the inference?

Gor. In the case supposed:-Yes.

Soc. And the same holds of the relation of rhetoric to all the other arts; the rhetorician need not know the truth about things; he has only to discover some way of persuading the ignorant that he has more knowledge than those who know?

Gor. Yes, Socrates, and is not this a great comfort?-not to have learned the other arts, but the art of rhetoric only, and yet to be in no way inferior to the professors of them?

Soc. Whether the rhetorician is or not inferior on this account is a question which we will hereafter examine if the enquiry is likely to be of any service to us; but I would rather begin by asking, whether he is as ignorant of the just and unjust, base and honourable, good and evil, as he is of medicine and the other arts; I mean to say, does he really know anything of what is good and evil, base or honourable, just or unjust in them; or has he only a way with the ignorant of persuading them that he not knowing is to be esteemed to know more about these things than some. one else who knows? Or must the pupil know these things and come to you knowing them before he can acquire the art of rhetoric? If he is ignorant, you who are the teacher of rhetoric will not teach him-it is not your business; but you will make him seem to the multitude to know them, when he does not know them; and seem to be a good man, when he is not. Or will you be unable to teach him rhetoric at all, unless he knows the truth of these things first? What is to be said about all this? By heavens, Gorgias, I wish that you would reveal to me the power of rhetoric, as you were saying that you would.

Can someone please send Mr.Will a copy of this book?

via Thinkprogress (where you can find a thorough discussion of just how bad Will’s piece was).

Suck.On.This, Gorgias.

I have been reading Plato's Gorgias lately, wondering why I didn't assign this to my argumentation class (well, ok, they had enough to do already).  But in honor of the "end" of the Second Iraq War, I think the following passage is worth thinking about:

Socrates. Come, then, and let us see what we really mean about rhetoric; for I do not know what my own meaning is as yet. When the assembly meets to elect a physician or a shipwright or any other craftsman, will the rhetorician be taken into counsel? Surely not. For at every election he ought to be chosen who is most skilled; and, again, when walls have to be built or harbours or docks to be constructed, not the rhetorician but the master workman will advise; or when generals have to be chosen and an order of battle arranged, or a proposition taken, then the military will advise and not the rhetoricians: what do you say, Gorgias? Since you profess to be a rhetorician and a maker of rhetoricians, I cannot do better than learn the nature of your art from you. And here let me assure you that I have your interest in view as well as my own. For likely enough some one or other of the young men present might desire to become your pupil, and in fact I see some, and a good many too, who have this wish, but they would be too modest to question you. And therefore when you are interrogated by me, I would have you imagine that you are interrogated by them. "What is the use of coming to you, Gorgias? they will say about what will you teach us to advise the state?-about the just and unjust only, or about those other things also which Socrates has just mentioned? How will you answer them?

It's early in the discussion, but let us never forget the rhetoricians who arranged battle for us.  The archives here are full of them.  Here for your horror, is one:

I think it [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie.

We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it.

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, "Which part of this sentence don't you understand?"

You don't think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we're just gonna let it grow?

Well Suck. On. This.


That Charlie was what this war was about. We could've hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could. That's the real truth.

And so example #15675432 why rhetoricians shouldn't advise.

Of aphorisms and neat language

Roger Scruton thinks the art of the aphorism in in decline among American English speakers. 

[W]hen they do talk, it is in an outpouring, in the belief that one person's language is as good as any other's. Bon mots, aphorisms, insightful quotations, nuggets of wisdom, or even ordinary apt remarks form only a tiny part of their conversation.

That's too bad, he thinks, because aphorisms are like stock cubes, they "are dry, salty, compact; and they are intended, when dissolved in thought, to be nourishing."  Not having that ability is a deficiency.  So far, this is just a point about rhetoric — we lack a special linguistic skill, apparently.  But, he notes, there are true and false aphorisms.  The true ones are from Henry James, Groucho Marx, and La Rochefoucauld. The false ones are from Marx, Christopher Hitchens, and Oscar Wilde. (Wilde gets lumped with the false aphorizers, because he came down against fox-hunting.) The trouble is that the catchiness of an aphorism is not what determines whether it is a true one or not, regardless of how one comes down on Scruton's division of them here.  The crucial thing is to direct them at truth, right?

How are we to recapture the forgotten ways of wit, and the use of aphorisms in the cause of truth? It seems to me that this is something that we ought to be teaching in our universities. A degree in the humanities should have something of the ancient study of rhetoric. It should be equipping students to persuade, to use language gracefully and succinctly, and to speak and write with style. Persuasion comes not through statistics and theories, but through the artful aphorism that summarizes, in the heart of the listeners, the things that they suspect but don't yet know.

But wait — it's in all those statistics and theories and stuff that the truth or falsity of something is found.  It's in the evidence, the argument.  Aphorisms are good ways to capture that stuff, but without the argument, the aphorism is just garbage.  And Scruton wants more rhetoric, not less?  What's necessary is more logic, more training in statistics, an education in history.  Not more rhetoric.

More on straw men

A commenter points to this February Wall Street Journal piece by Karl Rove on straw men.  I know.  The very idea of that person criticizing anyone for slimy rhetorical devices is beyond ridiculous.  But in the interest of fairness, let's discuss it anyway.

I should say first of all (I should repeat actually) that it's not much of an achievement to find "straw men" in anyone's "political advocacy" discourse.  There is after all a rather significant difference between a pundit, writing in the calm, reflective light of reason, and a politician, advocating for this or that policy or action.  While pundits represent ideological points of view, they do so on the assumption (I believe, at least) that the best arguments have compelled them.  Politicians must be content, however, to achieve their policy objectives by moving people to action.  This motivational discourse involves different rules.  A politician, I think, of any variety, can be allowed to paint in broad strokes, especially when it comes to his opposition, without suffering the accusation of using a straw man.  

This genre confusion, I think, is what drives Rove's inane piece.  He confuses the broad strokes of a politician, in particular the use of "some," for straw man arguments.  "Some" may signal a straw man, but it need not.  Rove writes:

President Barack Obama reveres Abraham Lincoln. But among the glaring differences between the two men is that Lincoln offered careful, rigorous, sustained arguments to advance his aims and, when disagreeing with political opponents, rarely relied on the lazy rhetorical device of "straw men." Mr. Obama, on the other hand, routinely ascribes to others views they don't espouse and says opposition to his policies is grounded in views no one really advocates.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama told Congress and the nation, "I reject the view that . . . says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity." Who exactly has that view? Certainly not congressional Republicans, who believe that through reasonable tax cuts, fiscal restraint, and prudent monetary policies government contributes to prosperity.

Mr. Obama also said that America's economic difficulties resulted when "regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market." Who gutted which regulations?

Not naming one's rhetorical opponent in a political speech is not the same thing as a straw man.  And besides, these and the rest of Rove's examples are not straw men, in that there are people, Republican people, who make arguments that the government never ever created one single job, and so forth (see chairman of the GOP, Michael Steele).  Obama's not naming them does not entail he's making them up.

So, I would say, Obama (and Bush, etc.) deserve some leeway in the identification of their opponent, especially in the context of major political speeches.  Does this free them from the responsibility of fairly characterizing their opponents?  Obviously not.  The boundaries of fair play are just somewhat broader.